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Despite Challenges, Luxury Travel is Booming

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© Getty Images PHOTO: Red carpet travel is more popular than ever. (photo courtesy of razihusin / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

By Robin Amster, TravelPulse

Business is booming this year with executives from luxury suppliers reporting double-digit growth as well as a positive outlook for 2019.

The executives—representing the luxury hotel, ocean and river cruises, tour operator, and airline segments—shared their insights on business and other issues during a panel discussion held in conjunction with a ribbon cutting for the opening of Valerie Wilson Travel’s new headquarters office in New York City.

Valerie Wilson Travel, a privately-held luxury travel consulting firm—led by founder Valerie Ann Wilson and daughters Jennifer Buttigieg-Wilson and Kimberly Wetty Wilson—celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017. The company has sales of some $345 million.

The executives, from Abercrombie & Kent, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Uniworld, Marriott Luxury Brands and Delta Air Lines, all reported robust business this year.

“2017 was a remarkably good year and business continues strong in 2018,” said Kristian Anderson, senior vice president of global sales for Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. “It’s our best performance in five years.

“Europe is back and people are ready to go,” he added. “Fatigue has been replaced with resilience. The river cruise industry is up in general.”

And Marett Taylor, Abercrombie & Kent’s vice president of agency sales, noted the disastrous effects of 9/11 on business. For example, A&K’s Kenya office, where Taylor had worked, had no business at all. Despite that, the tour operator kept all of its staff.

Similarly, in the wake of the political unrest in Egypt, Egypt and Israel is now A&K’s number one seller for group travel in 2019. “When it came back, we were ready to embrace the business.”

Valerie Wilson Travel itself is also experiencing a good year, according to Valerie Wilson. “We thought 2017 would be a good year but not a great year,” she said. “We were hedging on the ‘great,’ but we’re thrilled to say Valerie Wilson Travel is well over what is good. It’s great.

The executives discussed the Caribbean where travel has been challenged by the recent hurricanes.

Alexis Romer, vice president of sales for Marriott International Luxury Brands, said, “We’re taking our time coming back in Puerto Rico.”

“Our teams are working to get the island back up to par and restore the infrastructure,” Romer said. The company is looking toward next season, having given this season “a pass,” she added.

Romer also commented on the recent Marriott-Ritz Carlton-Starwood merger.

“It’s huge,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of integration going on. Where I thought maybe it would be done in a year, we’re now into the second year of that, and we’ll be lucky if we get out of integration in three years.”

Delta, meanwhile, is actually growing in the Caribbean, according to Chuck Imhof, vice president of New York Sales. “Our numbers look strong throughout the region,” he said. “We’ll have 140 flights a week to 16 destinations this fall [throughout the Caribbean]. It’s one more area in which we’re expanding.”

Kimberly Wetty Wilson noted that by 2020, the cruise industry will have its largest capacity ever. “What will that mean for the industry,” she asked.

“We’re entering the largest transfer of wealth in this country with baby boomers retiring,” said Caron Herron, vice president of field sales for Regent Seven Seas Cruises. “Baby boomers are our core business so that will continue to be strong.”

Uniworld’s Anderson, however, cautioned that “the rivers are becoming a little crowded.” He called the company’s growth “pragmatic.”

“We don’t want to oversaturate the marketplace,” Anderson said. “If you grow at an accelerated rate then you’re compromising yourself and setting the industry back.”

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